Gustavo Petro’s Administration Heralds a New Progressive Cycle in Latin America

Luciana Cadahia

Recently elected president Gustavo Petro's victory was a milestone not only for Colombia but for all of Latin America. With it, a new progressive wave has washed across the region.

Colombian president-elect Gustavo Petro vice president–elect Francia Márquez receive presidential credentials at the National Civil Registry in Bogotá, June 23, 2022. (Nathalia Angarita / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Interview by
Nicolas Allen

Few news stories in 2022 were as uplifting as the progressive victory of Gustavo Petro in Colombia. The former guerrilla fighter defeated Rodolfo Hernández in the runoff election to become the first left-wing president in the country’s history, accompanied by one of the most prominent Afro-Colombian activists, Francia Márquez, as vice president.

To understand the historic magnitude of his victory, the current political situation in Colombia, and the challenges that await the incoming government, Jacobin’s Nicolas Allen spoke with philosopher Luciana Cadahia.

Cadahia’s experience has been typical of many leftists in Colombia. A longtime Petro supporter, her political views ended up putting her at odds with her former employer, the Pontifical Xavierian University and, ultimately, with the right-wing forces gathered around former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe.

Today, she is a professor at the University of Chile, coordinator of the Populism, Republicanism and Global Crisis Network, and coauthor, with Paula Biglieri, of Seven Essays on Populism. Cadahia spoke with Jacobin about what we can expect from Colombia’s first leftist government.

Nicolas Allen

In some ways, Gustavo Petro’s win felt like a victory foretold. He was, after all, far ahead in the polls in the months leading up to the election. Perhaps, taking the long view, you could remind us why his victory was anything but predictable.

Luciana Cadahia

It is important to remember that Colombia has a long history of left-wing insurgencies, resistances, and popular organization. Sometimes we lose sight of that reality in a country like Colombia, which is seen by many as deeply right-wing. It can seem that way sometimes, but only because Colombia is one of the countries where the greatest number of political and social leaders are assassinated.

To give a concrete example, five presidential candidates were assassinated in Colombia during the twentieth century. All of them were popular leaders who sought to undo a long history of oligarchic power. The best-known cases are those of the left-wing liberal Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in 1948 and the liberal candidate Luis Carlos Galán in 1989. But during the 1990s, presidential candidate and former M-19 guerrilla member Carlos Pizarro was also murdered, as well as Bernardo Jaramillo and Jaime Pardo of the Patriotic Union, the party formed from the alliance between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC, in its Spanish acronym) and the Communist Party.

It’s important to reflect on this history because it means that, in a certain light, Colombia gave the lie to a certain triumphalism of the 1990s: at the same time as the Berlin Wall was falling, market democracy was being celebrated across the globe, and the Cold War was winding down, in Colombia, leftist and social movement leaders were being massacred.

The point is, Gustavo Petro should be seen as part of an unbroken legacy of popular leaders and radical movements struggling, against all odds, to wrestle power away from Colombia’s elite and give new meaning to the republic. In the case of Colombia, that struggle is about dismantling centuries of structural inequality, racism, and territorial dispossession.

What really sets Petro apart from that long history of progressive candidates who came before him is that this time, Colombia’s left-wing leader was not assassinated.

Nicolas Allen

His victory was also an important milestone for the peace process, wasn’t it?

Luciana Cadahia

Exactly. It was a milestone and, at the same time, the triumph of the Historic Pact was made possible by the peace process itself. Of course, it was the center-right government of Juan Manuel Santos that initiated that process. Between 2010 and 2018, during his two terms in office, Santos essentially decided to challenge the paramilitary hegemony of Álvaro Uribe — of which Santos himself was part, at least initially — and steer the country toward an unprecedented peace process.

During those ten years, very important negotiations took place between the guerrillas, the state, and different civil society actors. Also during that period, the Colombian people began to feel that change was in fact possible, and that it was feasible to end the armed conflict and untie the Gordian knot of systemic violence.

In 2018, Iván Duque, a direct representative of uribismo, won the presidency, and all that social, political, cultural, and economic momentum that had been building in Colombian society suddenly came to a halt. That violent rupture with the peace process and the equally abrupt resurgence of paramilitary warfare, together with the escalation of drug-trafficking activity, was traumatic for the Colombian people. This, combined with the economic crisis that came with the COVID-19 pandemic, led to increasing social restlessness and eventually culminated in the massive uprising of 2021.

In other words, we might say that Petro’s win is both a major advance for the peace process and a vital effort to rescue the cause of peace after it had been derailed by uribismo during Duque’s government.

I would add that, with Petro, there is more at stake than just the implementation of the Peace Accords; the other mission that Petro will have inherited from Colombian society is the full implementation of the 1991 constitution, a quite progressive document that resulted from the agreements between the M-19 guerrillas — of which Petro was a member — and the Colombian state.

The Constitution of 1991 was an important precedent for a series of progressive constitutions that came to define twenty-first-century radical politics in Latin America. When people think of the Pink Tide, they tend to think of the Andean constitutional assemblies: Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Colombia is usually left out of the picture.

This is a mistake, because, on the one hand, Colombia’s constitution inspired the subsequent constitutional processes and, on the other hand, the Colombian constitution was the result of a very important social pact that included the demobilized members of the M-19. That is to say, it was a constitution in which the democratic left played a big role.

Nicolas Allen

Petro himself has said that an ideal peace process would go beyond the demobilization of armed combatants to address the real social causes leading to violent conflict.

Luciana Cadahia

That’s right. The full realization of the accord’s potential would open the possibility of carrying out sweeping agrarian reform in Colombia. Let us not forget that land tenure is one of the Gordian knots in Colombia, and, to some extent, in all of Latin America. The elites in Colombia assassinated Gaitán precisely because he was going to carry out land reform. The guerrilla movement in Colombia began as peasant movements demanding agrarian reform.

In other words, to a certain extent, both the violence and the demand for peace begin and end with the question of access to land.

Nicolas Allen

Earlier you mentioned the protests of 2019 and 2021. To what extent were they decisive in these elections?

Luciana Cadahia

Colombia was, along with Ecuador, Chile, and Haiti, one of the epicenters of social mobilization that rocked Latin America in 2019. Specifically in Colombia, one of the triggers for the uprising was a sense of deception: the youth-led demonstrators came of political age during Santos’s administration and during the Peace Accords, so that when the logic of war was revived under Duque, they felt as if a promise for a better future had been broken. A similar sense of deception was what triggered the indigenous resistance and the black movement to join in street protests.

The social uprising of 2019 was a joining of forces: organized labor, indigenous movements, peasant organizations, and Afro-Colombian collectives joined with the youth and, later, popular and middle-class sectors too. This had the effect of breaking a certain hegemonic common sense, a certain self-image of Colombians as a conservative people, and made it seem much more believable that someone like Gustavo Petro could be the president of Colombia.

Nicolas Allen

But how did Petro become such an influential and popular, if not also controversial, figure in Colombian politics?

Luciana Cadahia

Ironically, the right-wing plot to oust Gustavo Petro as mayor of Bogotá, from 2012 to 2015, ended up backfiring: Petro became a household name. And this happened because Petro had the cunning to explain in clear terms that his impeachment was a typical ploy of the Colombian elites, completely in keeping with the systematic exclusion that all progressive and leftist forces in Colombia have long suffered from.

Petro showed that this type of oligarchic attitude — that politics should be reserved for the elite — was also creating the conditions for endless war in Colombia. Petro took the right-wing crusade against him as an opportunity to argue that a real peace process was not about winning the war against the guerrillas but rather about redressing historical injustices — social, environmental, racial — that the government refused to recognize.

Little by little, this progressive discourse began to catch on among everyday Colombians, and as it did, the logic of the war against an “internal enemy” — the war against guerrillas, leftists, narcos, etc. — began to lose its grip. This explains the 2018 elections, when Petro, together with Ángela María Robledo, made it to the runoff election. Iván Duque may have finally won that contest, but there were also many signs of systematic voter fraud.

All the while, Petro was organizing a “political instrument,” now known as the Historic Pact. This was formed from different leftist political parties — Petro’s own Colombia Humana, MAIS, Unión Patriótica, Polo Democrático, Francia Márquez’s Movimiento Soy Porque Somos, Poder Ciudadano, the demobilized members of the M-19, etc. — which were later joined by members of more traditional political forces. In Gramscian terms, the sheer size of that alliance created a transversal political pact that forced Petro’s adversaries to debate on the terms set by progressivism.

Nicolas Allen

And yet Petro won by a fairly narrow margin. That suggests a strong opposition once he takes office, doesn’t it?

Luciana Cadahia

Sure, of course. There are more than 10 million voters who either remained on the side of uribismo or somehow were put off by the idea of a Historic Pact government. But it would be wrong to think that these voters represent a homogeneous group with a coherent ideology. They are dispersed, often apolitical, and rarely loyal in their political sensibilities. This contrasts with the more than 11 million voters of the Historic Pact, who do share a distinct political orientation. That is to say, they share a minimum common agenda: to implement the Peace Accords and to guarantee social and territorial justice.

We shouldn’t discount the possibility that some part of the uribista base shifted to Rodolfo Hernandez in the second round, but we also shouldn’t lose sight that Petro has been the target of nearly a decade of scaremongering campaigns by the major media and political establishment. It would only be natural that such stigmatization would influence the average Colombian citizen.

Nicolas Allen

Many thought that, since elections came down to two non-uribista candidates, it could signal the end of Uribe’s influence.

Luciana Cadahia

It could be. Between 2002 and 2010 Álvaro Uribe built a right-wing narco-hegemony in Colombia — that is, an institutional, political, and economic regime based around the drug trafficking economy. That regime, whose ideology I would characterize as “right-wing popular nationalism,” consisted in extending and deepening existing links between organized crime and the state (what has come to be called the “narco-state”). The windfall of that process created opportunities for upward social mobility, to the benefit of some poorer sectors and the middle classes.

One of the foundational narratives undergirding this right-wing hegemony was the ongoing fight against the “internal enemy”: an ill-defined figure that combined guerrillas, leftists, “terrorists,” and drug traffickers (never mind that Uribe himself belonged to the latter group). But in reality, the “internal enemy” was a mechanism, typically fascist, to conjure a figure that represents the opposite of the existing symbolic, cultural, political, and economic order, and that can only be dealt with through extermination.

In Bogotá, demonstrators take part in protests against a tax reform bill launched by Colombian president Iván Duque. (Juan Barreto / AFP via Getty Images)

Beginning in 2010, that regime and the ideology legitimizing it began to lose steam. Juan Manuel Santos, Uribe’s supposed successor, won the presidency and immediately declared himself an opponent of uribismo, abandoning the discourse of the internal enemy and adopting the peace process as a banner cause for his two terms in office.

As mentioned before, the defeat of the plebiscite for the Peace Accords in 2016 and the triumph of Iván Duque in 2018 kept uribismo on life support, but the peace process had advanced too far. A new generation of Colombians was not willing to let the peace process come undone, which is why we saw the uprisings and eventually Petro’s victory.

Nicolas Allen

What are the highlights of Petro’s platform?

Luciana Cadahia

The triumph of the Historic Pact means that Colombia will become a regional leader. Just think: Colombia connects Central America, the Caribbean, the Andes, and the Southern Cone on both the Atlantic and Pacific sides. And a large part of its territory includes the Amazon.

By connecting all these different regions, Colombia can act as a strategic actor in the effort to control regional drug-trafficking networks. Colombia can also act as a key intermediary in the conflict with Venezuela, after long having been one of the key causes of that conflict, and can lead the way in terms of the energy transition in the region.

In a broader sense, Colombia can help to unify political and cultural repertoires, which are very fragmented at this moment in Latin America. At the same time, Colombian progressivism can put front and center issues that some felt were ignored during the previous Pink Tide: the transition from the extractive fossil economy to a new, more sustainable economic model; the central role of Caribbean and Afro-Latin Americans in politics (in addition to indigenous, peasant, and urban popular sectors, which were more prevalent in the previous cycle); a new hemispheric pact that assumes neither the leadership of United States nor an a priori rejection of the United States, which, after all, is an important regional player.

This last question is of special importance, considering the outsize role that Colombia has played as a strategic regional partner for US interests. I believe that we are on the verge of charting a different relationship with the United States, a more democratic and egalitarian relationship, if you like. With progressive governments in Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Honduras, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and, quite likely, Brazil, there will be a powerful momentum to rethink the North-South relationship in the Americas. We are in a new position where it will be possible to push back against imperialist US policy and press for a more egalitarian, continental dialogue.

Nicolas Allen

Petro recently announced a cabinet that contains a mix of more traditional political figures, several of whom have served in previous administrations, and others who come from social movements. What does the composition of the cabinet tell us?

Luciana Cadahia

It seems to me that his cabinet choices were very intelligent. Sometimes there is a belief — perhaps a little naive — that real change only happens by putting people in office who have never held positions in government or who have no experience in public policy. I think Petro struck an appropriate balance between people with experience in strategic areas, such as José Antonio Ocampo in the Ministry of Economy or Álvaro Leyva Durán in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and other people with a lot of symbolic weight who can project a stance of plurinational unity, such as Patricia Ariza in Culture or Francia Márquez in Equality.

The appointment of Susana Muhamad as environment minister is a real statement of intent, since she combines experience as an environmental activist and in government. She has very clear ideas about how Colombia can form a different type of relationship with nature.

All in all, Petro has put together a well-balanced cabinet that will guarantee governability at a time when the Right could seek to destabilize the Historic Pact through the media or the courts.

Nicolas Allen

Would you say that one the main challenges Petro will face in his first months in office is dealing with the right-wing reaction?

Luciana Cadahia

The first thing the Historic Pact has to guarantee is governability. Latin American oligarchies tend to fight tooth and nail to preserve their privileges, and they are willing to use any and all resources at their disposal: the media, political instruments, economic power — you name it, so long as it means keeping popular governments from being able to govern. This is perhaps even more the case in a country like Colombia, where there are substantial alliances between certain elite strata and organized crime.

However, in one key respect, Colombia is unlike other progressive countries. Petro has the distinct advantage that he can build a plan for government on top of the already popular Peace Accords. That is, he has already inherited a program for structural change that precedes him. Again, this is to his advantage, because it sets him up as the leader who will execute the popular will, while downplaying the perception that he governs through any sort of cult of personality.

The other challenge is to address Colombia’s fiscal deficit through some form of progressive tax reform. Who is going to bear the brunt of the tax burden, the elites or the poor? Petro has been clear where he stands on the issue: that the wealthiest should shoulder the burden. But the question is whether he will have the political muscle to see that kind of reform through. We should recall that, in Ecuador and Argentina, progressive presidents were almost removed from office for doing so.

Then there are all the structural challenges: education, health, agrarian reform, recognition of historically excluded identities, and so on. As we were discussing before, many of these are materially tied to the full realization of the Peace Accords.

Finally, the most difficult and perhaps most promising challenge for the incoming administration: the transition from a fossil fuel economy to a sustainable model of production. Hopefully Petro’s administration will be the beginning of a continent-wide debate on the need for a new environmental policy.

Nicolas Allen

What kind of political muscle will Petro have to face his adversaries? What channels can Petro use to galvanize society to his side?

Luciana Cadahia

Defusing the threat of the extreme right will require a complicated operation: the building of an alternative common sense. In order to displace the rhetoric of war and the internal enemy, there needs to be something else on the national agenda.

Building that consensus will mean bringing on board all political and business sectors who are in favor of the peace process. At the same time, the process needs to be more open to social movements and activists — that is, these popular sectors, which have long been marginalized from public opinion, must also be able to shape national debates.

This will also mean rethinking culture itself, which has long been a stronghold of conservative power. Historically, the link between culture — literature especially — and power has left a negative legacy in Colombia. The famous literary critic Ángel Rama came up with the concept of the ciudad letrada after living in Bogotá in the 1980s: the idea that, in Latin America, what is called “culture” is really an instrument of domination.

Nicolas Allen

The victory of Petro and Márquez follows on the heels of Gabriel Boric’s win in Chile and months before the Brazilian election, where Lula is the favorite. How would you characterize the current political period in Latin America, which some are already calling a second progressive wave or “pink tide”?

Luciana Cadahia

I agree that the time has come to speak of two distinct periods of progressivism in Latin American politics. The first one is bookended by the triumph of Hugo Chávez and the project of a twenty-first-century socialism in 1999, and the second was inaugurated by Gabriel Boric in 2021. Gustavo Petro and Francia Márquez are the consolidation of that second wave, the confirmation that we are in a new period.

The period in between the two is just as important to consider: crucially, we saw rise of the extreme right, which was largely absent from the previous cycle, and a transition between the two cycles with the likes of AMLO in Mexico, Pedro Castillo in Peru, Xiomara Castro in Honduras, and the return of MAS [Movimiento al Socialismo] in Bolivia, and the Frente de Todos in Argentina. So you could say there was a first progressive cycle that ran from 1999 to 2016, followed by an impasse between 2017 and 2020, and then a second cycle starting in 2021.

The first period was characterized by the fight against neoliberalism, the International Monetary Fund, and US interventionism, as well as regional integration and the expansion of redistributive and restorative measures favoring popular sectors, indigenous movements, and the middle classes.

What most characterizes this second cycle is the political will to tackle certain issues, sometimes lacking in the earlier period, that are best embodied in the proposals of Petro and Márquez: extractivism and resource-export dependency, unresolved identity demands — particularly, although not exclusively, around Afro-Latin American sectors — and the need for a new, more fully continental self-image not concentrated exclusively in South America.